Innovative digital mental health tools can democratize quality care, say WISH 2020 experts

Virtual WISH (World innovation Summit for Health) 2020 focused on the theme of mental health

During a panel discussion on “Mental Health and Digital Technologies”, moderated by broadcast journalist Folly Bah Thibault, Prof. Helen Christensen, Director and Chief Scientist of the Australia-based Black Dog Institute introduced a new report, The Digital Mental Health Revolution: Transforming Care Through Innovation and Scale-Up, by saying: “COVID-19 has really elevated the key messages of this report. 75% of some populations are experiencing psychological distress. Many are developing mental illness for the first time.

The scale to reach people

“One of the biggest challenges is trying to create the right sort of ecosystem to allow digital and face-to-face services to work well together, and even better than what the best health services can do simply face-to-face. With digital, we can do things more efficiently and have the scale to reach people.”

Report co-lead, Dr. Tom Insel, co-founder and chair of Silicon Valley start-up, Humanest Care, said: “I think it is a revolution that if there is one area of healthcare that is going to be transformed by technology, it may well be mental health. We have the opportunity to democratize care. High quality care can now be delivered in a way that we could hardly have imagined 10 or 20 years ago. The report breaks down the best principles for thinking about where the revolution is right now, what needs to happen, and where the challenges are.

No health without mental health

“We often say there’s no health without mental health. We now have a way of improving health outcomes even before we’re able to do much on other kinds of chronic diseases.”

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Dr. Olivier Véran, the French Minister of Solidarity and Health, said: “One of the keys will be the ability of carers and patients to contribute to the design and development of digital tools and to appropriate them. And this is a major priority as we imagine a user-citizen who is an actor in their own health, a partner in a growing digital ecosystem.”

Local cultural development

Discussing the need for these tools to take into account local cultures, Dr. Dena Al-Thani, Assistant Professor at the College of Science and Engineering at Hamad bin Khalifa University, said: “In our field, we stress user involvement and human-centered design. Many of the technologies available are targeted toward Western societies, which consider mental health from a different perspective. We need to include all groups, specific nationalities, disabilities and different age groups through participatory co-design. By asking users to weigh in early in the process we gain their trust and engagement.”

Digital friendship benches

Chinwendu Ukachukwu, a pharmacist and mental health advocate, argued that there is a need for “digital friendship benches” that still offer some community support. She added: “Especially for young people, there is a need to create diverse, youth-friendly culturally sensitive content for digital mental health solutions because what matters to one community may not matter to another. To do that, we need to involve communities and technology developers. In low- to middle-income countries, there may be access issues to the internet and data among young people, so we need a collaborative effort among different stakeholders.”

Big Tech collaboration

Panelists also emphasized the need for collaboration. Professor Miranda Wolpert, Head of the Mental Health Priority Area at the Wellcome Trust, said: “We are in the midst of a digital revolution for mental health science, and the opportunities are amazing. We need productive partnerships between the commercial agencies and big tech players and research agenda. Collaborations on a health compact based on what good health looks like for users of those big tech platforms can create opportunities to do research at scale.”

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Evidence-based approaches and open source interventions

Dévora Kestel, Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Use at the World Health Organization, said: “Funding and project mechanisms should be set up to ensure that the existing evidence can be used by researchers and developers. The benefit would be that they work together and combine expertise on evidence-based approaches.” She also stressed that digital mental tools should be developed in partnership with end users, applying human-centered principles and where possible, “some digital mental health interventions should be made open source, available to everyone no matter what resources they have.”

Not enough has changed

In concluding, Dr. Christensen said: “I appreciate that countries have different health systems and access levels. I agree that structures need to change so that everyone has access to the internet. But during COVID-19, we demonstrated that digital technologies can deliver treatments through telehealth and there is potential for scaling. It has changed the views around trust and digital and amplified a variety of responses, but in a sense not enough has changed.

“If you work backwards and map out the digital technologies that can fit in to facilitate the goals and aims of [the health system], that’s an important step to start with.”

Please see below a full report on the panel discussion as well as a video of the recording:

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